Why ‘RBG’ (Film and Notorious!) Is Calling Artists to Action

Forget the "quiet resistance." Artists must be an emphatic, self-assured group that won't be silenced.

Notorious RBG artwork. Photo: Courtesy of The Coffeelicious.

The New York Times recently took the rare step of publishing an op-ed by an anonymous author, an unnamed “senior official” in the Trump administration. The startling piece depicts an amoral president and a two-track White House in which senior aides work on real policymaking while an inept, erratic president tweets, rants and raves. The depiction is supported by veteran investigative reporter Bob Woodward’s bombshell book Fear: Trump in the White House, which details all the chaos and impotence.

Add to these not-so-revelatory revelations some questions. For example, is the public still aware that nearly 500 Central American children remain separated from their parents? At best, the Trump administration is dragging its feet reuniting unaccompanied minors with their already-deported parents. At worst, our government is deliberately keeping parents separated from their children to punish them for seeking asylum in the US, and to deter future families who might dare to attempt the journey.

Our president has also led us down a path towards icy relations with our ally and neighbor, Canada. A colleague of mine recently remarked that picking a fight with Canada is akin to fighting with a stuffed teddy bear.

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It can be difficult to find bright spots of inspiration or any signs pointing to a prosperous future amid so much uncertainty and fear. As I sat down to write this, Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s pick to fill Justice Kennedy’s Supreme Court seat, completed his second day of a contentious nomination process. No, I will not momentarily reference Kavanaugh as our bright, shining light or our progressive beacon of hope.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA, left) with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Photo: LongRoom News.

While I’ve been glued to the confirmation hearings so far, I’ve also sat alarmed, like many others, by the 35-month gap in Kavanaugh’s records from his time as Staff Secretary in the Bush Administration. The not-so-crazy theory around Kavanaugh is that he was nominated because of his expansive and documented view on executive power. Which is why Republicans don’t want the people to see the documentation. What is most shocking to me is the performance of the Senate Judiciary Committee — an attempt to pretend as if all is well, that we are in normal times, that this is business as usual. That this is just some typical liberal outcry against a President that would do anything to counter.

The hearings — or should I say “show” — also leave me half-heartedly wishing I’d gone to law school. Which leads me to a bright spot: RBG. The sensation of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival documents the Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s path from her Brooklyn upbringing to the highest bench in the nation. A pop-culture phenomenon, she is warmly referred to as “The Notorious RBG.She’s one of those bright lights. Ginsberg is a symbol of hope to many young women (myself included) that reminds us of our society’s progress and all that’s left to accomplish.

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RBG also reminds me, as a dancer and dance educator, of the importance of the arts in today’s climate. Whether the art highlights influential figures like Ginsberg, or explicitly is activist in nature, or exists for beauty’s sake, what we create has the power to offer hope, to inspire dissent, and to connect us to a shared humanity.

The unnamed Trump senior official (or officials) who authored that Times op-ed refers to being a member of the “quiet resistance.” RBG tells us that it is time for artists not to be sidelined as part of a “quiet resistance,” but to act as an emphatic, self-assured group that will not be silenced. We have to step up.

Artists — like CFR contributor and actor Elizabeth Burke and her work to bring theater to Central American children housed in a shelter near her apartment — are uniquely qualified to utilize their art for social good. We are in a dire time right now; as artists and engaged citizens, it is up to us to utilize our unique talents to ignite that hope, to inspire that dissent, to connect us to that shared humanity. We do it when we initiate dialogue and when we commit to tackling racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, the Trump administration’s lack of empathy. The wound inflicted by isolationism, ethnocentrism and authoritarianism is being deepened every day. RBG reminds us that we are called to heal it.